How to insult nicely in writing, with business jargon…

Jargon and slang as metaphors are wonderful tools to use if you want to insult or express rage in a business context without swearing or ranting.

business jargon and slang to use when youre angry

MBWA: Management By Wandering Around, suggesting that managers simply walk around rather than do their jobs properly…

Here is a selection for you to keep handy, excerpted from my jolly little book English Business Jargon and Slang… 

A lemon: not a piece of citrus fruit, but a word used to describe a product or service that doesn’t work, for whatever reason. Common examples of “a lemon” include a car that is always breaking down or has manufacturing faults, and investments that fail to make money. No-one seems to know exactly why the word “lemon” has come to describe such bad things, but it’s probably connected with the lemon’s bitter, sour taste.

Bad apple: if you know about horticulture you will know that one bad apple in a collection of good ones has the ability to make all the others rot in a short space of time. That’s how the metaphor works: one “bad apple,” e.g. a negative or disruptive member of a team, employee, supplier etc., or even an inappropriate policy within a project, can be enough to cause a lot of damage to the overall organisation or activity. The term may originate from religious sermons preached in the USA in the 19th century.

Batting on a sticky wicket: a term from the originally British game of cricket. In that game it refers to damp and muddy circumstances which make the game very difficult to play. In business, it means the same: a difficult situation.

Bird brain: term that rather rudely assumes birds are stupid. Although a little old-fashioned now, it is still used to describe someone who is either stupid, superficial, or both.

Blamestorming: this is related to brainstorm and is a rather sarcastic way to describe a meeting after a failure of some sort, and how people will try to say it was not their fault.

Chew out: slang for telling someone off or reprimanding them, e.g. “my boss chewed me out because I had forgotten an important client meeting.” Rumor has it that the expression became popular in the US Army during World War Two, when superiors’ act of shouting and talking when telling someone off, reminded them of someone chewing vigorously.

Chicken out: it seems people have been regarding chickens as fearful, spineless birds since Shakespeare’s time when, in Cymbeline in 1623, he wrote “Forthwith they flye Chickens, the way which they stopt Eagles.” (Mind you, if you have seen an angry rooster defending his ladies in the farm yard you will disagree with this sentiment…) Anyway, today someone who “chickens out” of a promise, agreement, etc., is letting you down and/or backing out, possibly because they lack the courage to go ahead with it.

Cock a snook: mainly British expression which the Americans call “the five-fingered salute.” You place one hand vertically at a 90° angle to your face with the tip of your thumb resting on the tip of your nose, and with your fingers erect and waggling. The meaning is that you don’t like and/or don’t take seriously whatever or whoever is being discussed at the time. Origins are very vague: a “snook” is a promontory of land that sticks out which could resemble your hand when it’s in place, and “cock” could refer to the way your hand resembles a cock’s (rooster’s) comb.

Couch potato: a 20th century expression meaning someone who sits around on the couch (or sofa, settee, chesterfield, armchair, etc.) watching TV and being lazy. It was coined, so we’re told, by Tom Iacino from California, who founded a group to counter the rising popularity of exercise and healthy eating in the 1970s. The reference to “potato” may be due to the fact that potatoes are tubers, and in the USA a slang term for television is “the tube.”

Damp squib: (sometimes said as damp squid, but as squid are marine animals they need to be damp to survive!) A squib, on the other hand, is a kind of firework and as you know, if fireworks get damp, they tend not to work properly or at all. So a “damp squib” is an occasion, activity, product, event, meeting, training course etc., that does not live up to expectations and is, basically, disappointing or even a total a failure. The first known use of the term goes back to the early 19th century in England.

Fly off the handle: a lovely term meaning to lose your temper. This term originates in the USA (although it could originate from almost anywhere else) and refers to the way the head of an axe can fly off its handle, especially if used wrongly. The idea of the term goes back to the mid-19th US century literature.

Go whistle: also “go whistle for it,” and other variants. Essentially it means to forget about whatever you’re hoping to achieve, as according to the person saying it you may as well “go whistle” for it – you won’t get it from them. Much as this term has been popularized in the 21st century by British politician Boris Johnson, in fact it has been around for several centuries in the English language. It seems the earliest mention of something along the same lines was in popular use in the mid 15th century in Britain. Shakespeare used the term, too, in “The Winter’s Tale,” in a quote by Clown, the shepherd’s son.

Gobbledegook: said to originate from the USA in the 1940s. It means written or spoken words that are garbage, rubbish, gibberish … incomprehensible nonsense.

Golden handshake: a polite way of describing a business bribe, although in most countries this form of bribe is legal. Usually the term is used to describe a sum of money given to someone who retires early … especially if his/her company wants them to go. Sometimes it can help persuade someone to join the company: in that case it also can be called a “golden hello.”

Kickback: another word for bribe. A kickback is an unofficial (and often illegal) payment of money to someone who can influence your business success, to make sure that they do it. It can also refer to an unofficial commission paid to someone who passes on a business deal that’s advantageous to you.

Long in the tooth: this term basically means “old,” and can refer to people, businesses, methods, technologies and more. The term comes from the sometimes disputed view that people, horses, and possibly other creatures experience growth of their teeth as they get older, so showing longer teeth. Modern dentistry – both human and equine – suggest that it’s the way gums recede as we get older that creates this impression, for both humans and horses. However inaccurate the term’s origins may be, “long in the tooth” still means “old.” In literature, it’s said that use of this term could go back several centuries, but it was William Makepeace Thackeray who wrote, in 1852, “She was lean, and yellow, and long in the tooth; all the red and white in all the toyshops of London could not make a beauty of her.”

MBWA: initials with a surprisingly sarcastic meaning: they stand for Management By Wandering Around, suggesting that managers simply walk around rather than do their jobs properly.

Mushroom management: here is a gardening metaphor. There are two basic versions of what mushroom management means; they are very alike but one is ruder than the other. Both are comparisons between how to grow mushrooms, and how to manage a company very badly – usually where managers do not communicate with staff. Here is the more polite version … “mushroom management” means to keep employees in the dark and shovel dirt all over them. Which works well to grow mushrooms…

No sh*t, Sherlock: an expression you may not hear in formal meetings but you may well hear in casual business conversations. You may recall Sherlock Holmes, the famous (fictitious) British detective written about by the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Sherlock was, of course a brilliant detective. When people use the expression “no sh*t, Sherlock?” it’s a sarcastic way of saying you think the person speaking is rather stupid and doesn’t understand things.

Shape up or ship out: this quite simply means that someone must perform better or depart. It seems to have originated in US Navy forces during World War II in the 1940s. There are a number of variants in terms of what it meant: some say it was an order used when people were underperforming. Others say it was used as a threat for people who didn’t behave in a suitable military manner: anyone not performing was liable to be sent overseas to a combat zone.

Talk to the hand: a term of vague origins but thought to come from the west coast of the USA in the very late 20th century, when someone who really does not want to hear what you have to say raises the palm of one hand at you and says, “talk to the hand.” Essentially it’s a fairly brutal way of dismissing you, and is considered very rude.

Train wreck: a contemporary term with the literal meaning of a railroad accident. It is also used as a euphemism for an unstoppable business or civic disaster.

When pigs can fly: given that pigs don’t fly and never will unless genetic engineering makes some pretty radical advances, to say that “I will believe that when pigs can fly” is a metaphor for the fact that you do not and cannot believe what the person is suggesting. And where does this wild metaphor originate? Although you might think it’s a contemporary idiom, it isn’t. In fact there are suggestions that this may have been a traditional Scottish proverb, devised as far back as the late 16th century in an edition of John Withal’s English-Latin dictionary for children. In it we saw the proverb that read, “pigs fly in the air with their tails forward.” Interestingly, too, you’ll also find a reference in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” in which the Duchess proclaims “just about as much right as pigs have to fly.” Whatever, though. In business, this delightful term – understandably, in the circumstances – often is used sarcastically in relation to frivolous entrepreneurial ideas which fail to meet common-sense criteria. E.g., “that process will work when pigs can fly.”

You are toast: a popular, contemporary term meaning that you are out of luck – finished – dismissed from your job or other terminally negative interpretations. Although this term has a very final ring to it, when you think about it “toast” is not the end of a process but the beginning of a potentially appetizing experience. Some say the expression comes from Canada, but the New York Times recorded the use of this term back in the latter decades of the 20th century.

Now: that book of mine I mentioned?

English Business Jargon & Slang

Click on the photo for more information

Pssst … copies of this book will make good gifts

for that upcoming C-word, especially for your business contacts, clients and prospects.

Contact me on if you’d like to discuss a bulk order of signed copies.

Or, it’s on all the Amazons.